Life begins again for Chinese girl sold as slave at 12

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The Independent Online

Jin Yi is 19 but still looks about 12, her age when she was sold into marriage to a 30-year old peasant. These days, the once-rebellious youngster cuts a timid figure. "I forgot how to laugh or cry," she says. "Each time I did, his family beat me. They treated me like a slave doing hard labour. Everyone knew about me in the village, but when I protested and ran away, I was caught and beaten. I didn't try again."

Jin Yi is 19 but still looks about 12, her age when she was sold into marriage to a 30-year old peasant. These days, the once-rebellious youngster cuts a timid figure. "I forgot how to laugh or cry," she says. "Each time I did, his family beat me. They treated me like a slave doing hard labour. Everyone knew about me in the village, but when I protested and ran away, I was caught and beaten. I didn't try again."

Jin is one of the lucky ones. After seven years held against her will in southern China, she was rescued by Peking police last month in a national crackdown on human trafficking. The Chinese government says it has freed more than 10,000 kidnap victims since 1 April.

Yet experts warn that more needs to be done. In all of 1999, the Ministry of Public Security rescued just 9,000 abducted women and children, and development workers suspect the present crackdown may fizzle out after a few months.

The ancient trade in human lives, banned under Chairman Mao, is booming. Conservative estimates of abducted women run into tens of thousands each year. They are usually between 13 and 24 and, although some are sold into prostitution, most end up in forced marriages in rural areas. With peasants no longer tied to communal land, more than 140 million people have migrated to the cities, leaving peasants in remote villages little option but to buy a wife from elsewhere.

China's one-child policy has aggravated the problem. The traditional preference for sons has led to baby boys being abducted for families without children or only with daughters, and selective abortions and female infanticide have produced a severe demographic imbalance: China has 100 million more men than women.

Simple economics drive many peasant families to the traffickers - it is cheaper to buy a wife than find one to marry. On average, a woman costs RMB3,000 (£231), and a wedding and the requisite dowry gifts exceed RMB10,000 (£770). Most of the human trade happens in rural areas, but city girls are increasingly vulnerable.

Jin Yi was tricked into leaving Peking after the schoolgirl quarrelled with her parents. "I met a lady at the train station," Jin told The Independent. "She said, 'Come to Anhui, it's great fun, you'll love it'." When they reached Fuyang City, an impoverished region renowned for sending cheap labour across China, Jin was sold for RMB2,800 [£220] to a local family with four sons.

Jin eventually smuggled a letter home with a Peking-bound migrant. Her father found the village but failed to win her freedom. "They said, 'We bought her, she's ours'," says Jin. Her father visited almost every year, but she never saw the money he left.

Jin's mother and father have learning difficulties. Only when Jin's uncle, Jin Anpeng, heard of the government campaign did he contact police. On 10 April, with policemen and journalists in tow, he rescued his niece from her captors.

"I burst her into tears at seeing her," he said. "She wore shabby clothes covered in mud, cloth shoes with her toes showing through. She had become a peasant girl, dark and skinny, with coarse hands and lice in her hair." Jin Yi longs to recapt-ure her lost years and educa-tion. After a month back home, she has learnt to laugh again.

Jin Yi was lucky in one respect. Poor nutrition from the scraps she survived on delayed her menstruation, and spared her the horror of sleeping with her owner.

The woman who abducted Jin Yi has been arrested, but Chinese law stipulates only a three-year jail term for buyers of women and children. This is rarely implemented. Legal experts want harsher penalties.

But Jin Yi is not merciful. "The buyers and the sellers should be shot," she said.

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